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Rachel Jackson

ROUGH AS GUTS
(A REAL MESS)

Not for the Fainthearted
 
Not a very attractive advertisement for 15 acres of cut-over ex-forestry land some distance from Waimauku, near Auckland’s west coast beach Muriwai!
 
What could ever have persuaded Rachel Jackson and her partner Brian to give up a lovely home on the outskirts of Waimauku with its glorious five acre garden after they had poured so much love into it, so much in labour, time and money?
 
Rachel is a ‘city’ girl, brought up in Auckland’s Three Kings in a Quaker family with roots and connections in several lines going back to George Fox. Her father was a keen gardener on the family’s half-acre property, but Rachel, an MA in French and Geography with a long teaching career at Tauranga Girls College and later Auckland Girls Grammar behind her, had never had any thoughts of going rural until she met her partner.
 
The living was pleasant at Waimauku until subdivision threatened the couples’ privacy. What to do? The ‘rough as guts’ description of property that they looked at as a possible answer to their problem was no exaggeration, and Rachel had to suffer chiding from a friend who considered she was far too old at 61 to even contemplate such a project. However their experience of achieving marvels on their 10 acre block at Waimauku gave them the confidence to go ahead, and in the end adventurous living won out over comfort, and the pair moved into a near-by rental cottage while they began to clear the debris left after the recent removal of 617 Pinus radiata trees.
 
When loggers move in they fell, trim and remove the logs, often creating slides which rip up anything in their path. Then the loggers move out, leaving the cut stumps, unusable logs and all the branches and leafy tops, an unimaginable amount of debris which one has to climb over and fight one’s way through. Such debris takes years to break down into compost, the alternative being to try to consolidate it and then burn it.
 
And burn they did, having offered it to anyone willing to take firewood away. At last, after many months, they could walk over the property, see the lay of the land and plan.
 
It is a mid-winter day and I have come to see what they are making of it.
 
Not far from Gisborne the Eastwoodhill Arboretum is a long established 135 hectare property containing over 18,000 trees and shrubs mainly from the northern hemisphere, the largest collection south of the Equator, where natives are combined with deciduous trees to create a stunningly beautiful landscape through the use of colour and form, just as a painter might do.
 
Inspired by Eastwoodhill, Rachel and Brian began planting trees, often in large groups, as with the many varieties of oaks that they grew from acorns, but also often selecting a stand-alone specimen tree such as the magnificent melia (an ebony from Australia), the liriodendron (tulip tree), the English flowering chestnut, or the albizia (silk tree from the Middle East), to mark a feature of the land form; or planting trios, such as the tupelo with its almost black foliage as contrast; or a broken row for a special colour effect, such as with the many paulownias which will in time reflect the pale mauve flowers of the jacaranda high on the hill above.
 
Of course these are all just bare sticks at present but I made a mental note for a visit in ten years time, when the huge variety of plants and the sensitivity of the landscaping will be manifest.
 
A good sized pond complete with boat for clearing the weed infestation feeds a stream which runs along the valley floor, bridged in several places, and along its edge established poplars mingle with a profusion of regenerating tree ferns, and other natives; puahou (five finger), totara, kanuka, horoeka (lancewood) and rewarewa (honeysuckle tree), and one magnificent rimu which somehow escaped the fate of the pines. In places poplar trunks have fallen at right angles to the stream but are now sprouting branches which are beginning to form hedges of young trees, thus creating separate alcoves for specialised development, one such area being Rachel’s camellia garden.
 
Groups of ginkgos, liquidambars and flowering cherries are placed to the north to bring shade in summer where needed, and much thought has been given to planning how to combine evergreen and deciduous trees so that winter sun will not be blocked. Nestling into the side of a hill where the sun would never be blocked is an incipient grove of about 30 kauri seedlings as yet only knee high, grown from seed from a giant tree on a reserve nearby. At the southern end of the property a grove of long-living redwoods begins a lifetime of what may be many centuries.
 
Of course coming up between the new plantings are many small radiata seedlings which Rachel gives to friends and family as Christmas trees. It is heart-warming to see how nothing needs to be wasted.
 
The land is a paradise for birds, ‘a birds’ supermarket’, says Rachel. It lacked flax originally, but now dozens of flax stud the wetlands, and surround the pond, while Rachel is examining her six little kowhai trees for signs of flowering this spring. A shade house is filled with ferns in pots waiting for the right time to be planted along the creek and round the pond, and another shade house holds precious cuttings from all over. Rachel says her garden is ‘full of people’, and every gardener knows the pleasure of reminiscing about ‘who gave us this plant, where did that one come from?’
 
Areas set apart for growing vegetables are mostly fallow at present but already almost all of the extensive variety of fruit trees planted in the last three or four years have born fruit. The nuts are taking a bit longer. Fortunately the soil is good valley loam, profiting from ash from the fires, and sheep manure from the third of the property in pasture where the neighbours’ sheep graze. But Rachel works tirelessly at improving the soil, laying newspaper down and covering it with mulch, or compost from a labour-saving compost bin.
 
A lot of work goes into countering the unwanted invaders from surrounding properties, such as gorse, blackberry, tobacco weed, onion flowers and those seductive climbers- honeysuckle and convolvulus- with their pretty flowers and damaging habits. A watchful eye must be kept out for kikuyu too because that is present on neighbouring land.
 
When it’s absolutely too wet to work outside Rachel and Brian read. No time is wasted on third rate television entertainment. There is a television set in the loft of the shed, a space for visitors to bed down, but as yet it can only be accessed by a high and very steep ladder. One would have to be very keen.
 
One of the beauties of this property is that its owners can go off on their travels and have few cares about maintenance; the property can look after itself in all but dry spells when watering is necessary, and the Lockwood home they chose, with certain changes to the layout, is low maintenance. This is important for Rachel as travel has been part of her life, from the time she went on a UNESCO Youth Travel Grant which took her to Friends’ work camps and Young Friends gatherings in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and India, till her years of teaching in London when she took every opportunity to explore, from Russia to North Africa and all countries in between; all helpful experience for a geography teacher.
 
Nowadays Rachel and Brian take their bicycles and ride, a way of getting close to the land and culture of a country impossible for the ordinary tourist. To begin with Rachel ‘got into gear’ on a few days cycling in the Bay of Plenty, but has now had four trips away with Brian on extensive cycling trips in Europe, Scandinavia and North America, perhaps the most exciting being the trip down the Great Divide from Canada to Mexico, on a now famous mountain bike trail that follows at times old rail tracks and sections of sealed road, through ranch land, forestry and mining areas and many national forests and parks, with camping grounds well stocked with firewood and safes to protect food from bears. And with eight mountain passes over 10,000 feet! Rachel thinks she may be the first New Zealand woman to ride that trail, aided by her ‘granny’ gear.
 
Meeting fellow cyclists on the trails in every country they have visited has led to wonderful friendships worldwide, so that adventures will always beckon for this extraordinary couple. Rachel describes her present life as ‘having fun’ but also recognises that because some of her forebears cleared the land for farming in this country she feels it a privilege to be able to give something back in return for the forests previously destroyed.
 
It is a gift that will grow in beauty and significance for a very long time.
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